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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature


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(Heb. Arabah', עֲרָבָה, desert; Sept. ἔρεμος, also ἄβατος, ἄπειρος , and γῆ διψῶσα, but in Joshua 18:18, Βαιθάραβα; Auth. Vers. elsewhere "plain"), the name of a region or tract and of a town.

1. This word, with the article (הָעֲרָבָה, the Arabah), is applied directly (Deuteronomy 1:1; Deuteronomy 2:8; Deuteronomy 3:17; Deuteronomy 4:49; Joshua 3:16; Joshua 12:1; Joshua 12:3; 2 Kings 14:25; Amos 6:14) as the proper name of the great valley in its whole extent lying between the Dead Sea and the gulf of Akabah. Indeed it may be said to reach, with a partial interruption, or rather contraction, from Banias, at the foot of Mount Hermon, to the Red Sea. It thus includes toward the north the lake of Tiberias; and the Arboth (plains) of Jericho and Moab form parts of it. The surface of the Arabah proper is said to be almost uninterruptedly a frightful desert. The northern continuation is watered by the Jordan, which, during its course, expands into the lakes el-Huleh and Tiberias, and is at length lost in the bitter waters of the Dead Sea; this latter occupying the middle point of the great valley nearly equidistant from its two extremities. The Scriptures distinctly connect the Arabah with the Red Sea and Elath; the Dead Sea itself is called the sea of the Arabah. In the Auth. Vers. it is rendered "plain." The Greek name of this tract was Αὐλών, Aulon, described by Eusebius (Onomast. s.v.) as extending from Lebanon to the desert of Paran. Abulfeda speaks of it under the name el- Ghor, and says correctly that it stretches between the lake of Tiberias and Ailah or Akabah (Tab. Sqyr. p. 8, 9). At the present day the name el-Ghor is applied to the northern part from the lake of Tiberias to an offset or line of cliffs just south of the Dead Sea; while the southern part, quite to the Red Sea, is called Wady el-Arabah, the ancient Hebrew name. The extension of this valley to the Dead Sea appears to have been unknown to ancient geographers, and in modern times was first discovered by Burckhardt (Travels in Syria, p. 441; Robinson's Palest. 2, 594-600). The importance of this great medial valley to the topography and natural features of Palestine (q.v.), as well as in the history of the Exode (q.v.), requires a full discussion of its peculiar designation and characteristics. (See TOPOGRAPHICAL TERMS).

I. Name.

1. If the derivation of Gesenius (Thes. p. 1066) is to be accepted, the fundamental meaning of the term is "and" or "waste," and thence "sterile," and in accordance with this idea it is employed in various poetical parts of Scripture to designate generally a barren, uninhabitable district, "a desolation, a dry land, and a desert, a land wherein no man dwelleth, neither doth any son of man pass thereby" (Jeremiah 51:43; see a striking remark in Martineau, p. 395; and, among other passages, Job 24:5; Job 39:6; Isaiah 33:9; Isaiah 35:1). (See DESERT).

2. But within this general signification it is plain, from even a casual examination of the topographical records in the earlier books of the Bible, that the word has also a more special and local force. In these cases it is found with the definite article (הָעֲרָבָה, ha-Arabah), "the Arabah," and is also so mentioned as clearly to refer to some spot or district familiar to the then inhabitants of Palestine. This district, although nowhere expressly so defined in the Bible, and although the peculiar force of the word "Arabah" appears to have been disregarded by even the earliest commentators and interpreters of the Sacred Books, has within our own times been identified with the deep-sunken valley or trench which forms the most striking among the many striking natural features of Palestine, and which extends with great uniformity of formation from the slopes of Hermon to the Elanitic Gulf of the Red Sea; the most remarkable depression known to exist on the surface of the globe (Humboldt, Cosmos, 1:150, ed. Bohn; also p. 301). Through the northern portion of this extraordinary fissure the Jordan rushes through the lakes of Huleh and Gennesareth down its tortuous course to the deep chasm of the Dead Sea. This portion, about 150 miles in length, is known among the Arabs by the name of el-Ghor (the depression), an appellation which it has borne certainly since the days of Abulfeda. The southern boundary of the Ghor has been fixed by Robinson to be the wall of cliffs which crosses the valley about 10 miles south of the Dead Sea. Down to the foot of these cliffs the Ghor extends; from their summits, southward to the gulf of Akabah, the valley changes its name, or, it would be more accurate to say, retains its old name of Wady el-Arabah.

Looking to the indications of the Sacred Text, there can be no doubt that in the times of the conquest and the monarchy the name "Arabah" was applied to the valley in the entire length of both its southern and northern portions. Thus in Deuteronomy 1:1, probably, and in Deuteronomy 2:8, certainly (Auth. Vers. "plain" in both cases), the allusion is to the southern portion, while the other passages in which the name occurs point with certainty now that the identification has been suggested to the northern portion. In Deuteronomy 3:17; Deuteronomy 4:49; Joshua 3:16; Joshua 11:2; Joshua 12:3; and 2 Kings 14:25, both the Dead Sea and the sea of Cinneroth (Gennesareth) are named in close connection with the Arabah. The allusions in Deuteronomy 11:30; Joshua 8:14; Joshua 12:1; Joshua 18:18; 2 Samuel 2:29; 2 Samuel 4:7; 2 Kings 25:4; Jeremiah 39:4; Jeremiah 52:7, become at once intelligible when the meaning of the Arabah is known, however puzzling they may have been to former commentators. In Joshua 11:16; Joshua 12:8, the Arabah takes its place with "the mountain," "the lowland" plains of Philistia and Esdraelon, "the south" and "the valley" of Coele- Syria, as one of the great natural divisions of the conquered country. (See PLAIN).

3. But farther, the word is found in the plural and without the article (עֲרְבּוֹת, Arboth), always in connection with either Jericho or Moab, and therefore doubtless denoting the portion of the Arabah near Jericho; in the former case on the west, and in the latter on the east side of the Jordan; the ArbothMoab being always distinguished from the Sedeh-Moab the bare and burnt-up soil of the sunken valley from the cultivated pasture or corn- fields of the clowns on the upper level with all the precision which would naturally follow from the essential difference of the two spots. (See Numbers 22:1; Numbers 26:3; Numbers 26:63; Numbers 31:12; Numbers 33:48-50; Numbers 35:1; Numbers 36:13; Deuteronomy 34:1; Deuteronomy 34:8; Joshua 4:13; Joshua 5:10; Joshua 13:32; 2 Samuel 15:28; 2 Samuel 17:16; 2 Kings 25:5; Jeremiah 39:5; Jeremiah 52:8.) (See JERICHO).

4. The word Arabah does not appear in the Bible until the book of Numbers. In the allusions to the valley of the Jordan in Genesis 13:10, etc., the curious term Ciccar is employed. This word and the other words used in reference to the Jordan valley, as well as the peculiarities; and topography of that region in fact, of the whole of the Ghor will be more appropriately considered under the word JORDAN (See JORDAN) . At present our attention may be confined to the southern division, to that portion of this singular valley which has from the most remote date borne, as it still continues to bear, the name of "Arabah." (See CHAMPAIGN). For a map of the region, (See EXODE).

II. Description. The direction of the Ghor is nearly due north and south. The Arabah, however, slightly changes its direction to about N.N.E. and SS.W. (Robinson, 1:240). But it preserves the straightness of its course, and the general character of the region is not dissimilar to that of the Ghor (Irby, p. 134) except that the soil is more sandy, and that, from the absence of the central river and the absolutely desert character of the highland on its western side (owing to which the wadys bring down no fertilizing streams in summer, and nothing but raging torrents in winter), there are very few of those lines and "circles" of verdure which form so great a relief to the torrid climate of the Ghor. The whole length of the Arabah proper, from the cliffs south of the Dead Sea to the head of the gulf of Akabah, appears to be rather more than 100 miles (Kiepert's Map). In breadth it varies. North of Petra that is, about 60 miles from the gulf of Akabah it is at its widest, being perhaps from 10 to 12 miles across; but it contracts gradually to the south till at the gulf the opening to the sea is but 4, or, according to some travelers, 2 miles wide (Robinson, 1:240; Martineau, p. 392).

The mountains which form the walls of this vast valley or trench are the legitimate successors of those which shut in the Ghor, only in every way grander and more desert-like. On the west are the long horizontal lines of the limestone ranges of the Tih, "always faithful to their tabular outline and blanched desolation" (Stanley, p. 7; and see Laborde, p. 262), mounting up from the valley by huge steps with level barren tracts on the top of each (Robinson, 2:508), and crowned by the vast plateau of the "Wilderness of the Wanderings." This western wall ranges in height from 1500 to 1800 feet above the floor of the Arabah (Robinson, 1:240), and through it break in the wadys and passes from the desert above unimportant toward the south, but farther north larger and of a more permanent character. The chief of these wadys is the W. el-Jerafeh, which emerges about sixty miles from Akabah, and leads its waters, when any are flowing, into the W. el-

Jeib (Robinson, 2:500, 508), and through it to the marshy ground under the cliffs south of the Dead Sea. Two principal passes occur in this range. First, the very steep and difficult ascent close to the Akabah, by which the road of the Mecca pilgrims between the Akabah and Suez mounts from the valley to the level of the plateau of the Tih. It bears apparently no other name than en-Nukb, "the Pass" (Robinson, 1:257). The second es-Sufah has a more direct connection with the Bible history, being probably that at which the Israelites were repulsed by the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 1:44; Numbers 14:43-45). It is on the road from Petra to Hebron, above Ain el-Weibeh, and is not, like the former, from the Arabah to the plateau, but from the plateau itself to a higher level 1000 feet above it. See the descriptions of Robinson (ii. 587), Lindsay (ii. 46), Stanley (p. 113). The eastern wall is formed by the granite and basaltic (Schubert, in Ritter, Erdk. 14, 1013) mountains of Edom, which are in every respect a contrast to the range opposite to them. At the base are low hills of limestone and argillaceous rock like promontories jutting into the sea, in some places thickly strewed with blocks of porphyry; then the lofty masses of dark porphyry constituting the body of the mountain; above these sandstone broken into irregular ridges and grotesque groups or cliffs, and farther back and higher than all long elevated ridges of limestone without precipices (Robinson, 2:505, 551; Laborde, p. 209, 210, 262; Lindsay, 2:43), rising to a height of 2000 to 2300 feet, and in Mount Hor reaching an elevation of not less than 5000 feet (Ritter, Erdk. 14, 1139,1140). Unlike the sterile and desolate ranges of the Tih, these mountains are covered with vegetation, in many parts extensively cultivated and yielding good crops; abounding in "the fatness of the earth" and the "plenty of corn and wine" which were promised to the forefather of the Edomites as a compensation for the loss of his birthright (Robinson, 2:552; Laborde, p. 203, 263). In these mountains there is a plateau of great elevation, from which again rise the mountains or rather the downs (Stanley, p. 87) of es-Sherah.

Though this district is now deserted, yet the ruins of towns and villages with which it abounds show that at one time it must have been densely inhabited (Burckhardt, p. 435, 436). The numerous wadys which at once drain and give access to the interior of these mountains are in strong contrast with those on the west, partaking of the fertile character of the mountains from which they descend. In almost all cases they contain streams which, although in the heat of summer small, and losing themselves in their own beds or in the sand of the Arabah "in a few paces" after they forsake the shadow of their native ravines (Laborde, p. 141), are yet sufficient to keep alive a certain amount of vegetation, rushes, tamarisks, palms, and even oleanders, lilies, and anemones, while they form the resort of the numerous tribes of the children of Esail, who still "dwell (Stanley, p. 87; Laborde, p. 141; Martineau, p. 396) in Mount Seir, which is Edom" (Genesis 36:8). The most important of these wadys are the W. Ithm and the W. Abui Kusheibeh. The former enters the mountains close above Akabah, and leads by the back of the range to Petra, and thence by Shobek and Tufileh to the country east of the Dead Sea. Traces of a Roman road exist along this route (Laborde, p. 203; Robinson, 2:161); by it Laborde returned from Petra, and there can be little doubt that it was the route by which the Israelites took their leave of the Arabah when they went to "compass the land of Edom" (Numbers 21:4). The second, the W. Abu Kusheibeh, is the most direct access from the Arabah to Petra, and is that up which Laborde and Stanley appear to have gone to the city. Besides these are Wady Tubal, in which the traveler from the south gains his first glimpse of the red sandstone of Edom, and W. Ghurundel, not to be confounded with those of the same name north of Petra and west of Sinai.

To Dr. Robinson is due the credit of having first ascertained the spot which forms at once the southern limit of the Ghor and the northern limit of the Arabah. This boundary is the line of chalk cliffs which sweep across the valley at about six miles below the south-west corner of the Dead Sea. They are from 50 to 150 feet in height; the Ghor ends with the marshy ground at their feet, and level with their tops the Arabah begins (Robinson, 2:494, 498, 501). Thus the cliffs act as a retaining wall or buttress supporting the higher level of the Arabah, and the whole forms what in geological language might be called a "fault" in the floor of the great valley. Through this wall breaks in the embouchure of the great main drain of the Arabah the Wady el-Jeib in itself a very large and deep water- course, which collects and transmits to their outlet at this point the torrents which the numerous wadys from both sides of the Arabab pour along it in the winter season (Robinson, 2:497, 500, 507). The farthest point south to which this drainage is known to reach is the southern Wady Ghurundel (Robinson, 2:508), which debouches from the eastern mountains about 40 miles from Akabah and 60 from the cliffs just spoken of. The Wady el-Jeib also forms the most direct road for penetrating into the valley from the north. On its west bank, and crossed by the road from Wady Musa (Petra) to Hebron, are the springs of Ain el-Weibeh, maintained by Robinson to be Kadesh (Res. 2, 582; but see Stanley, p. 94). Of the substructure of the floor of the Arabah very little is known. In his progress southward along the Wady el-Jeib, which is, during part of its course, over 100 feet in depth, Dr. Robinson (ii. 498) notes that the sides are "of chalky earth or marl," but beyond this there is no information. The surface is dreary and desolate in the extreme. According to Dr. Robinson (2, 502), "A lone shrub of the ghudah is almost the only trace of vegetation." This was at the ascent from the Wady el-Jeio to the floor of the great valley itself. Farther south, near Ain el-Weibeh, it is a rolling gravelly desert, with round naked hills of considerable elevation (ii. 580). At Wady Ghurundel it is "an expanse of shifting sands, broken by innumerable undulations and low hills" (Burckhardt, p. 442), and "countersected by a hundred water- courses" (Stanley, p. 87). The southern portion has a considerable general slope from east to west quite apart from the undulations of the surface (Stanley, p. 85), a slope which extends as far north as Petra (Ritter, 14:1097). Nor is the heat less terrible than the desolation, and travelers, almost without exception, bear testimony to the difficulties of journeying in a region where the sirocco appears to blow almost without intermission (Ritter, 14:1016; Burckh. p. 444; Martineau, p. 394; Robinson, 2:505). However, in spite of this heat and desolation, there is a certain amount of vegetation, even in the open Arabah, in the dryest parts of the year. Schubert in March found the Arta (Calligonum com.), the Anthia variegata, and the Coloquinta (Ritter, 14:1014), also tamarisk-bushes (tarfa) lying thick in a torrent bed (p. 1016); and on Stanley's road "the shrubs at times had almost the appearance of a jungle," though it is true that they were so thin as to disappear when the "waste of sand" was overlooked from an elevation (p. 85; and see Robinson, 1:240, 258). (See ARABIA).

It is not surprising that after the discovery by Burckhardt in 1812 of the prolongation of the Jordan valley in the Arabah, it should have been assumed that this had in former times formed the outlet for the Jordan to the Red Sea. Lately, however, the levels of the Jordan and the Dead Sea have been taken, imperfectly, but still with sufficient accuracy to disprove the possibility of such a theory; and in addition there is the universal testimony of the Arabs that at least half of the district drains northward to the Dead Sea a testimony fully confirmed by all the recorded observations of the conformation of the ground. A series of accurate levels from the Akabah to the Dead Sea, up the Arabah, are necessary before the question can be set at rest, but in the mean time the following may be taken as an approximation to the real state of the case. (See the profiles on Petermann's Map.)

1. The waters of the Red Sea and of the Mediterranean are very nearly at one level (See DEAD SEA).

2. The depression of the surface of the Sea of Galilee is 652 feet, and of the Dead Sea 1316 feet, below the level of the Mediterranean, and therefore of the Red Sea. Therefore the waters of the Jordan can never in historical times have flowed into the gulf of Akabah, even if the formation of the ground between the Dead Sea and the gulf would admit of it. But,

3. All testimony goes to show that the drainage of the northern portion of the Arabah is toward the Dead Sea, and therefore that the land rises southward from the latter. Also that the south portion drains to the gulf, and therefore that the land rises northward from the gulf to some point between it and the Dead Sea. The water-shed is said by the Arabs to be a long ridge of hills running across the valley at two and a half days, or say forty miles, from Akabah (Stanley, p. 85), and it is probable that this is not far wrong. By M. de Bertou it is fixed as opposite the entrance to the Wady Talh, apparently the same spot.

2. A city of Benjamin (Joshua 18:18), elsewhere (Joshua 15:61; Joshua 18:22) called more fully BETH-ARABAH (See BETH-ARABAH) (q.v.).

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.

Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Arabah'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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